What’s a Union For?

By Carla Murphy Apr 16, 2014

Labor unions in the U.S. are at a crossroads and workers of color–particularly women, and immigrants– figure prominently in how well they move forward. Big labor, now down to representing only about one in every 10 American workers, knows this. But incorporating immigrants and non-union and unemployed workers will also mean addressing their community issues, too–like mass incarceration and immigration reform. And for many young workers facing a bleaker present and future than many current pensioners, advancing non-workplace issues affecting low-income and working class people of color makes the difference between joining up or observing from a distance. Some unions get that. And that’s all some young workers are demanding.

The support Constance Malcolm, 40, received from her union exemplifies this trend, which is known as social justice unionism. Malcolm belongs to an unenviable club of black moms. On an early February afternoon in 2012, about two weeks before George Zimmerman shot and killed Trayvon Martin in Sanford, Florida, the NYPD kicked in the door of her Bronx apartment and in the bathroom, an officer shot her 18-year-old son, Ramarley Graham in the chest. He was unarmed. A bag of marijuana floated in the toilet bowl.

Questions about how officers came to follow Graham in the first place as he left a nearby bodega found a growing community space for protest. Civil disobediences to end racial profiling and stop-and-frisk were then beginning to be seen more frequently due to a handful of dedicated activists. But the death of an unarmed teen helped magnify the call.

What had previously been small street corner rallies of 10 to 20 people mushroomed within four months into a march of tens of thousands down Fifth Avenue to then-mayor Michael Bloomberg’s mansion. Part of the reason was Graham’s mom. Ten years ago Malcolm, a certified nursing assistant, joined Service Employees International Union (SEIU), one of the fastest growing labor unions in the country. Identified by their purple and yellow T-shirts, her local, 1199SEIU East, along with Rev. Al Sharpton’s National Action Network, organized the 2012 Father’s Day march. It showed New York City for the first time just how many people, and not just black and Latino males, were against the NYPD’s practice of stop-and-frisk.

"Eleven ninety nine got thousands of people to come out to march and see the injustice being done to black and brown people," Malcolm says one early afternoon by phone. Her shift as a certified nursing assistant at a Bronx home has not too long ended. "So much had been going on with our youth, especially around stop-and-frisk, and people seemed not to pay attention. But 1199 got people out in the street."

"They’re not just here for members but for all people," Malcolm says. "I think they would support anyone in an unjust situation."

How unions use (or, don’t use) their organizing power was a key theme among young workers of color and young whites, too, at a recent Chicago labor conference attended by 3,000 rank-and-file members from around the country. In an era of cutbacks in jobs, public services, wages and, until recently, healthcare, a union’s willingness to represent the hard issues facing their generation and all working communities appears to matter even more. It is not enough to work for members’ on-the-job concerns, only.

"Unions want more members in order to be more powerful–but in order to do what?" asks 25-year-old Michelle Crentsil, an African-American union member who advocates on behalf of medical residents and doctors in New York City. "We can be more powerful to get good contracts and we should. But we need to be more powerful to address police brutality and mass incarceration, too."

In some ways, unions organizing for all workers, not just dues-paying members on the job is a practical matter. Compared to 30 percent of the workforce in the early 1960s, only one out of every 10 American workers is a union member today.

"They’re going to die," Cornell University labor professor Kate Bronfenbrenner matter-of-factly says, of unions that don’t look beyond workplaces to engage non-union workers in social justice unionism.

For Crentsil, appealing to new membership matters. She points out that research consistently shows that people of color, particularly women of color, are the workers most likely to unionize today. So supporting a living wage for non-union fast food workers, or advocating for local ordinances around paid sick leave or affordable childcare makes sense. More than that though, Crentsil, a Harvard grad from a working class family with union ties in Kentucky*, cares about strategy and wants unions to be clear-eyed about the attacks they’ve faced over the last few decades.

"When unions talk about inequality we have to name the implications that has for people of color and the intentionality behind that," she says. "When [this country] thinks of a public worker, for example, they think of a lazy black woman in a post office. They’re saying these workers don’t deserve protections or higher pay because they have racist, sexist notions of who these workers are."

Crentsil sees a clear bright line connecting increasingly difficult on-the-job fights for all workers, and the dominant racist framing of workers as undeserving.

"Every contract fight is dealing with basically the micro-manifestation of a larger problem of how we view workers in America," she says. Those biases, which debase one group of workers, justify continued lowering of protections and job security for all workers, union or no, Crentsil suggests.

It was difficult initially for 34-year-old Ramsés Teón-Nichols to connect his struggles as a young Latino on the job, with struggles he faced as a young Latino in the world. A case manager at a nonprofit providing housing to the homeless in San Francisco, Teón-Nichols is also vice president of organizing for an SEIU local. A decade ago however, he was a recent college grad with a deep student activist background who saw big labor as bureaucratic and unresponsive or unaccountable to "the community."

"I’d see hotel workers go on strike where I grew up in Las Vegas but it felt like, well, they look out for their own. What about the great majority of us who don’t have a union?" Teón-Nichols says.

What he didn’t realize then, he says, was that those hotel workers were bringing hard-won income as well as a sense of stability that derived from job contracts, back home to their neighborhoods.

"Without those on-the-job protections, things would be that much more difficult in their neighborhoods," says Teón-Nichols who describes as a formative and enriching moment, helping to form a union of nonprofit workers in his 20s with other low-income men of color.

"Forming a union gave us a space to figure a way out of unfair work conditions and managers that we thought were racist," he says. "And in a way, as men of color, we felt like by fighting back against racist bosses we were also fighting this larger system that in our daily lives was keeping us down."

Dina Yarmus, 29, a waitress in a hotel restaurant and an organizer in her Unite Here local in Philadelphia says she wouldn’t stand for a union that only supported members.

"If I found myself in a union that only advocated for dues-paying members, I’d organize to change that," she says. "There are union members in that struggle now. You need to figure out how to do both."

Yarmus, who is white, is aware of how race plays in her workplace, throughout the hotel industry and in her city. White workers typically fill front-of-house positions. Lower-paid and back-of-the-house positions: Native and immigrant men and women of color. And because of Philadelphia’s history, she says, it takes longer and is harder to build trust. But after a decade of fighting in her workplace and in Philadelphia communities for immigrant rights, against gentrification and for quality public schools, Yarmus says that what bridges the gap between all workers is a desire to have more control over their lives when so much–like unemployment, food stamps–is being taken away.

"People are being pushed and pushed to see their problems as individual with individual solutions," Yarmus says. "But our power comes from the ability to act collectively. A union is about fighting for democracy in the workplace but a union movement has to be about fighting for democracy in society."

While broad union membership has been on the decline, labor professor and researcher Bronfenbrenner says certain sectors are growing–especially if they are organizing women of color.

"The corporate-state alliance is so tight and workers rights are increasingly being dismantled so for unions to have power they’re going to have to build community coalitions and fight over much bigger issues," she says.

"That means, for example, women in the workplace are going to have to get men to join with them to fight over rights over access to birth control and reproductive health issues. And workers of color are going to have to get white workers to join with them to make sure they have access to the vote."

For 1199SEIU in New York City, social justice unionism meant organizing around stop-and-frisk and police brutality.

No doubt, Malcolm, a nursing assistant who emigrated as a teen from Jamaica, appreciates the comparative job security offered by belonging to 1199. The Bronx has the highest unemployment in the state, 12 percent, and just a few train stops away from Malcolm’s working-class neighborhood is the poorest congressional district in the nation.

But she appreciates, too, that her union president spoke during the recent second anniversary of Ramarley’s death.

"He could’ve been somewhere else but he came," she says. With a grand jury failing last fall to re-indict Richard Haste, the officer who pulled the trigger, Malcolm is now asking the Department of Justice to step in and launch an investigation not only into Haste but the other officers on the scene.

Ramarley would have turned 21 this past Saturday.

*Post has been updated.